Is COVID-19 the Death of face-to-face Personal Training?

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The question of what the fitness landscape will look like in a post-COVID-19 world is at the top of everyone’s minds. With virtual workouts booming and people becoming increasingly accustomed to exercising at home, Darren Doak and Liz Shaw from The Training Room (TTR) – the UK’s leading educator of personal trainers – give us their opinions on whether this pandemic could be the beginning of the end for face-to-face personal training.

Creating human connection

 
According to Darren, National Field Manager for TTR, the main reason why face-to-face (offline) personal training will be tough to replace altogether is because “you can’t be absolutely everything to all people through virtual training,” suggesting that it’s more difficult to teach elements, such as technique, properly through a screen, and without being “in that person’s space,” it’s harder to establish a true human connection.
“Being with someone face-to-face enables you to more effectively pick up on their body language, mood, and vibe that day,” says Darren. “If you can’t sense that person’s aura, then you can’t react correctly to them using your soft skills, such as empathy, compassion, communication, motivation, and positivity. Therefore, the session can almost become defunct.”
Liz, Health and Fitness Tutor for TTR, agrees that it’s “harder to utilise your soft skills online,” but says “it’s not impossible” – meaning it may not create such a clear division between offline and online personal training. Liz also makes the interesting point that “holding weekly check-ins with clients via an online meeting platform such as Zoom can remind them that face-to-face connection is really important, helping to drive them back towards your physical, offline sessions post lockdown if that’s something you’re aiming to do.”

Equipment, the differentiator

While many people have invested in home workout equipment to maintain their fitness routines during COVID-19, most people won’t have a ‘gym-level’ of equipment at their disposal. “It’s the ace up the sleeve of the face-to-face, gym-based PT,” says Darren. “Something which helps to further separate their service from online alternatives.”
Although on-demand fitness brands, such as Peloton, iFit and Les Mills On Demand, are providing exercisers with instant access to constantly growing streams of workouts, these are usually being performed on a limited range of equipment, namely treadmills and indoor bikes.
“In a gym environment, clients have access to a much wider variety of strength and cardio equipment, creating more possibilities in terms of the training methods they’re able to utilise within their programmes,” comments Liz.
Darren adds: “To ensure specificity of training, a gym environment is essential in the majority of cases due to the wide variety of equipment and space it offers. Strength and conditioning, speed and agility, and bodybuilding, for example, are all made more achievable within a gym. Home-based workouts and equipment tend to become less useful as the person’s fitness knowledge, goals, and ambitions develop. In other words, they outgrow their environment, and that’s why the gym will always be an integral part of any fitness enthusiasts’ locker, in turn, supporting the existence of the face-to-face PT.”

Competing against free content

COVID-19 has led to a massive influx in online fitness content, and unless PTs/companies start putting this behind paywalls post-COVID-19, then it will remain there for all to access. So, with more content available than ever before, does this present another threat to the face-to-face PT?
Darren doesn’t think so. “Despite the abundance of free online content available, the average person cannot tailor their workouts by just picking and choosing content online,” he begins. “Therefore, you still need the guidance of a face-to-face or virtual PT to match the training methodology to the individual’s needs and requirements to help them progress effectively.”
However, where the face-to-face PT sets themself apart from the virtual PT is through their ability to interact will the client in real-time. “There are all sorts of practical, face-to-face assessments that are very difficult to reproduce in an online environment. Sometimes, there is the need to physically interact with a person when delivering a personal training session, which you can’t do virtually,” explains Darren.
The Training Room

Exercise made easy

 
Perhaps one of the biggest threats to face-to-face personal training is just how easy it is to exercise virtually. “From a client’s perspective, the sessions come to you. They’re in your home, on your terms, and you don’t have to travel,” says Liz. “Virtual personal training removes several barriers that can stop people from engaging – and staying engaged – with fitness.”
Darren adds: “As people ease their way back into ‘normal’ life following the lockdown, the accessibility aspect of virtual training may well keep people training at home, at least in the short term. As people get used to travelling again – going to work and social events – this may well begin to change, with increases in face-to-face personal training sessions.”

A focus on hygiene

After the lockdown has ended – and for the foreseeable future – people will likely be far more hygiene conscious, particularly in public spaces, including health and fitness clubs. This is something else that could act both in favour and against face-to-face PTs.
“In your own home, it’s far easier to control the environment around you,” says Darren. “So, at least in the immediate aftermath of COVID-19, there may be fewer people willing to attend individual and small-group personal training sessions at gyms and health clubs; instead, opting for virtual personal training sessions. However, this could also lead to the resurgence of the at-home PT – potentially offering a new revenue stream and area of focus for some PTs.”

A formidable pair

 
While many people will have fallen in love with virtual coaching during the lockdown and adopted this as their new, go-to training method, there will be many other people who can’t wait to escape the ‘virtual world’ we’re currently living in, resume their normal routines, and get back to having those face-to-face interactions in person.
“People will always want variety, which is another reason why it’s unlikely that virtual personal training will be the death of face-to-face training,” says Darren. “As well as the people who prefer one over the other, you will also find people in the middle who enjoy both virtual and face-to-face sessions and, therefore, mix the two together to form their exercise programmes.”
Taking this one step further, Liz suggests that these two worlds can work in harmony, enabling PTs to expand their offering, keep clients engaged, and boost revenue. “Rather than seeing virtual and face-to-face training as two separate entities, when combined, they can become a formidable pair, helping to boost client acquisition and retention,” Liz begins. “PTs can use virtual training to drive people towards physical classes, and vice versa. One becomes the lead generation tool for the other.”

Conclusion

 
Liz and Darren both believe that there’s still an important place for face-to-face personal training in the fitness industry that’s set to emerge from COVID-19.
“I don’t see COVID-19 as being the end of face-to-face personal training,” says Darren. “But I definitely think we, as PTs, need to evolve in light of the current situation, and we need to use this time to upskill in virtual training, which is likely to become a more integral part of a PT’s role.”
Darren continues: “Once we’re out the other side of this pandemic, there will be a new set of client habits, behaviours, fears, and expectations that we must address and adapt to. Perhaps, it would be more appropriate to say that there will no longer be such a thing as an ‘outright, face-to-face PT’ but more ‘hybrid PTs’ who mix physical and virtual training to both survive and succeed in this profession. Similarly, there will be different levels of ‘virtual PT’ from those that are ‘all-in’ to those who offer it as an extra service to their offline coaching.”
Liz adds: “While virtual training provides numerous opportunities for PTs, there’s a tendency to think that you have to be either ‘virtual’ or ‘non-virtual.’ And that virtual training must be a threat to face-to-face training, but it’s not as clear cut as that. While virtual training sessions can offer many benefits for clients, they can also be used to demonstrate that one-to-one, face-to-face coaching can never be fully replaced. I don’t see a future where one ousts the other, but instead, a larger presence for virtual training moving forward, accelerated by what we’ve experienced during COVID-19.”
To learn more about The Training Room’s personal training qualifications, CPD courses, and tutors, visit: www.thetrainingroom.com
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